Managing the commons: the writing of Elinor Ostrom

Throughout history, communities have shared common resources such as grazing land or local fisheries.

Land, forests, and fish are depletable resources, and the challenge for any community is to ensure that they are not overused. Nearly thirty years ago, Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom argued, with many case studies, that most communities can evolve rules themselves for restricting access to commons to share the resource fairly and husband its use. An example close to home is the rules that iwi and hapu have developed for controlling access to their fisheries – including the rahui, or closed season, to allow the fishery time to regenerate.

Ostrom argued that this form of self-regulation by communities was a viable alternative to both privatisation of the resource or rules laid down and enforced by outside authority – the lord of the manor or the government. She proposed some principles for community management of the commons, starting with agreement in the community on who would have access, when, and under what conditions, and how the rules would be collectively monitored and enforced.

More recently, Ostrom turned her attention to the application of the commons principle to the management of data or information. Here the problem is not fundamentally one of resource depletion. Data, information, and knowledge are different from natural resources: they are not depleted if used and their value to the community increases the more widely they are used. But with the growth of the Internet, people began to recognise that data shares some basic attributes with other resources.

As Ostrom and her colleague Charlotte Hess wrote ten years ago:

There appears to have been a spontaneous explosion of “ah ha” moments when multiple users on the Internet one day sat up, probably in frustration, and said, “Hey! This is a shared resource!” People started to notice behaviors and conditions on the web – congestion, free riding, conflict, overuse, and “pollution” – that had long been identified with other types of commons. They began to notice that this new conduit of distributing information was neither a private nor strictly a public resource.

So data sharing and reuse have both value and risks for its producers. The community therefore needs rules to manage the risks and harvest the value – and they turn out to be quite similar to those Ostrom originally proposed for a natural resource commons.

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